China's Xi to Visit Europe as Trade Tensions Rise


Chinese President Xi Jinping talks to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (not seen) at the Great Hall of the People, on April 26, 2024, in Beijing, China. [AP Photo]

China's leader Xi Jinping kicks off a six-day trip to Europe this Sunday, his first visit to the continent since 2019. The trip will include stops in France, Serbia and Hungary and comes amid rising tensions over trade with the European Union and concerns over Beijing’s support of Russia.

Some analysts say that while Russia’s war in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas conflict are likely to come up during the trip, Xi will be looking first to address trade tensions during the trip and to double down on Beijing’s close relationship with Budapest and Belgrade.

“In light of Europe’s growing appetite to investigate what they view as China’s unfair trade practices, [Xi’s European tour] is a trip to disrupt the EU’s efforts to adopt tougher trade measures against China,” said Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, an expert on EU-China relations at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan.

And by making stops in Serbia and Hungary, Ferenczy said Xi hopes to show that China remains influential in Central and Eastern Europe despite the growing number of countries withdrawing from the Beijing-led initiative known as “Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern Europe.”

“For Beijing, the symbolism of the trip to Serbia and Hungary is important as the stop in Budapest serves as an opportunity to amplify divisions within the EU,” she told VOA by phone.

Investigations piling up

Since last month, the EU has launched investigations against several Chinese products, including green energy products and security devices, and initiated a probe into China’s public procurement of medical devices.

The EU also increased scrutiny over several Chinese companies over the last week, toughening safety rules against Chinese fashion retailer Shein and opening formal proceedings against Tiktok under its Digital Services Act.

Beijing has repeatedly characterized Western countries concerns about Chinese excess capacity in some sectors as “baseless hype” and urged the EU to “stop wantonly going after and restraining Chinese companies under various pretexts.”

Rebalancing trade

Despite Beijing’s objection to concerns expressed by Brussels, France has reiterated the need for European countries to rebalance trade relations with China during recent bilateral meetings between Chinese and French officials.

“The European Union is a very open market, the most open in the world. But the current deficits with a certain number of countries, including China, are not sustainable for us,” said French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne during his trip to China last month.

During a phone call with French President's Diplomatic Counselor Emmanuel Bonne on April 27, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing hopes “the French side will push the EU to continue to pursue a positive and pragmatic policy toward China,” Wang said.

While France supports the EU’s efforts to rebalance trade relations with China, some experts say French President Emmanuel Macron will try to maintain a cooperative relationship with China.

“France wants to demonstrate that it is one of the major countries that can maintain channels of communication at all levels with China,” Sari Arho Havren, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in Brussels, told VOA by phone.

On April 25, Chinese and French armed forces agreed to establish a mechanism for maritime and aerial cooperation and dialogue, which Beijing characterized as “a vital step” to implement the consensus reached by Xi and Macron.

While trade issues will likely dominate Xi’s meeting with Macron, some analysts say the French president will try to address the issue of China’s ongoing support for Russia.

“Macron will try to convince Xi to agree [to reduce] China’s support to Russia, but in Europe, hopes that Sino-Russian collaboration will diminish are fading away,” Philippe Le Corre, a Senior Fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute's Center for China Analysis, told VOA in a written response.

Friend-shoring in Serbia and Hungary

In Hungary and Serbia, Ferenczy said Xi will focus on deepening bilateral cooperation in different sectors, especially infrastructure projects, and Beijing’s role as “a strategic investor” in both countries.

“We need to see his trip to Hungary  and Serbia in the context of the Belt and Road initiative since Beijing is trying to revitalize the infrastructure project in Europe,” she told VOA, adding that the Belgrade-Budapest Railway will be an important part of China’s attempt to expand its flagship infrastructure project in Central and Eastern Europe.

In recent months, the Hungarian government under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has tried to attract large amounts of Chinese investment – especially in the electric vehicle sector – while deepening security cooperation with Beijing.

During an interview with Chinese state broadcaster CGTN last week, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto expressed his opposition to the EU’s anti-subsidy investigation against Chinese EVs and said he “looks forward to the potential impact of the Belt and Road Initiative on Hungary's electric vehicle and battery manufacturing industry.”

Havren in Brussels said since Hungary is a member of the EU, the relationship with Budapest is particularly important to China. “Hungary could impact possible sanctions or anything that is of importance to Beijing in the EU,” she told VOA.

While the trip is unlikely to change the current dynamics between the EU and China, Havren said Xi will try to use China’s relationship with middle powers like France and its “iron-clad friendship” with countries like Hungary to make itself “more visible and relevant” in Europe.